Return Of The Champions
Hollywood Records, 2005
REVIEW BY: Jeff Clutterbuck
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/03/2006
It's ironic that the most torn I've felt about an album this year came at the very end of 2005. Listening to Return Of The Champions raised a lot of thought-provoking questions for me, and I still don't have answers for all of them. In the end it came down to the music, which is really what matters most.
While I am not a diehard fan, I enjoy a great deal of Queen's work. Some of their songs are absolute favorites of mine, and Freddie Mercury is in my eyes one of the greatest singers/frontmen in rock history. It is that latter aspect that has cause so much debate with this release. To many, Freddie was Queen. Moreso than Keith Moon to the Who and John Bonham to Zeppelin, Mercury encapsulated all that Queen was about. So what the hell is Paul Rodgers, formally of Free and Bad Company, doing here?
First off, from what I gather, Queen has not done much as a group since Mercury's death from AIDS in '91. This eliminated the idea that this tour with Rodgers was done for the money. Otherwise, one would think they would be recording and touring like mad, capitalizing off the Queen name. Secondly, from what Brian May and Roger Taylor have indicated, Rodgers is not going to be a full member of the band. So in essence, Mercury hasn't been completely replaced. Be that as it may, there were moments on Return Of The Champions where I expected to hear Mercury's soaring falsetto, but instead got a shot of bar room rock via Rodgers.
As I said earlier, it was the music that would make or break this album, and thankfully it is the former. Rodgers does not attempt to imitate Freddie -- while he is a world apart from what Mercury brought to the table, he imbues the material with his own style. "Tie Your Mother Down," "Hammer To Fall" and "We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions," get the full arena rock treatment, and the gusto with which Rodgers performs is impressive. There isn't the theatricality of Mercury, but somehow these songs seem to "rock" more than they did on record.
For the casual fan, this concert features pretty much all of the hits one would expect. And as I mentioned before, the musical performances are carried off with great panache and style. Eighties Queen has never held tremendous appeal for me, so the second disc falls part a bit in terms of pacing. Also, since Rodgers was performing, we get to hear a few Free and Bad Company songs, like "Feel Like Makin' Love," "All Right Now," and "Can't Get Enough." While the covers sound authentic, they don't fit in with the rest of the material. Queen was glam/prog/punk rock mixed together brilliantly and Free and Bad Company were more along the lines of straight-up hard rock. There were some other Queen numbers I would have preferred to see instead.
Obviously Rodgers is the sticking point for many on Return Of The Champions, but Brian May and Roger Taylor were the highlight for me. Taylor still can lay down a damn good beat, and May delivers knockout riffs after riffs, ensuring that the other aspects of Queen's music have remained. Of particular mention is May's performance of "'39," one of Queen's most unsung songs off A Night At The Opera. It's essentially a solo performance, but to hear the crowd singing along with May (in good vocal form) is touching.
Touching would be a good way to describe some of these performances. Listening to Mercury's "Love Of My Life," dedicated to his mother, is gut-wrenching. Just like "'39," it's May and the crowd trading verses, and you can hear the sadness in the voices. It's one of the most emotional moments I've heard from an album this year. The same can be said throughout "Bohemian Rhapsody." Queen decided to use Mercury's vocals practically throughout the entire song - a wise decision - and the closing lines of "Nothing really matters…" receive the aforementioned treatment to thunderous applause. Problem is, hearing Rodgers at all during the song is jarring and just wrong. "Rhapsody" is Mercury's and always will be.
The shadow of Mercury hangs over the entire disc, and it's understandable. It could not possibly be avoided; the man was a rock god. At the same time, one of the rules I use to judge a live album is if it sounds like I would have had a good time, and Return Of The Champions is a definite yes. It's not Freddie, but it is in no way unlistenable.